Celebrating soccer in Beckham’s new territory

As football’s focus shifts this weekend across the Atlantic, to where David Beckham returns to MLS, ANTON RIPPON writes on something in which US soccer has led the British game – a hall of fame

Set high in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, on the outskirts of the 19th-century red-brick railroad town of Oneonta, the home of the Oneonta Tigers of the New York-Penn League is pure Norman Rockwell, a backdrop for an Arthur Miller play, a pitcher-friendly old-time ballpark with no frills, one of the oldest still in use in professional baseball.

On a summer’s evening, when the bugs are at their most active and the Tigers are at home to the Batavia Muckdogs, there is surely no place in this town for the alien game of soccer. Yet is is here that there is a glimmer of appreciation for the game’s old values after all.

For just down the road from Damaschke Field, at Stadium Circle, stands America’s National Soccer Hall of Fame. And just as it has remained a mystery to the rest of us as to why the most sports-conscious nation on earth has failed to embrace the one truly global game, it is just as much a puzzle as to why the small town of Oneonta, with its minor league baseball set among the mountains where James Fennimore Cooper set The Last of the Mohicans, should provide a home for this remarkable tribute to a game which most Americans neither enjoy nor even acknowledge.

Yet the trail that leads indirectly to American ownership of Old Trafford, Anfield, Pride Park and Villa Park started here.

Jack Huckel, director of the museum and archives at the Soccer Hall of Fame, explained how the institution for which he works came to find a home in this unlikely setting: “It all started back in the late 1970s, with the Mayor’s Cup, the USA’s first national collegiate soccer tournament. Literally, the entire town would show up for soccer games under the lights at Damaschke Field. It was a great event and one that people thought should be recognised by a Soccer Hall of Fame.”

So, in March 1981, the Wilber Mansion on Ford Avenue became home to the USA’s National Soccer Museum. In its first year, around 2,000 visitors came to see the two-room museum and, by the end of that year, Oneonta was officially established as the home of the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

In 1987, a local bank helped to establish an interim museum in downtown Oneonta, but plans were already under way to create a purpose-built complex to celebrate the game. More than 60 acres of land were purchased and four pitches were constructed on the outskirts of the town. In June 1999, the current 40,000 sq ft museum opened at Stadium Circle. Now the Hall is devoted as much to missionary work as to glass cases full of old shirts, balls and trophies.

Says Huckel: “I think by certifying heroes of soccer, we give people a deeper understanding of the game. In American culture, Hall of Famer really stands for something. I’m hopeful that the history of the game will help Major League Soccer and US Soccer capture fans for the long haul.

“College soccer continues to have an impact. Several players do bypass college and go directly to MLS, but most play at least some collegiate soccer. Attendances are in the thousands for the best schools.

“When one compares its impact to traditional American sports, it’s not as great, but there is growth evident. Baseball has a long and revered history, professionally marketed for almost a century. The NFL exploded as the need for TV content exploded. These two are intimately intertwined in development and it has become such a huge marketing platform for products of all types — difficult to challenge these two. At the same time, MLS has about 50 per cent of the per-game attendance of baseball.

“And slowly we are seeing home-grown players beginning to capture the public’s imagination. Landon Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley have progressed to some international recognition, as have Tim Howard, Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller and Claudio Reyna, although at the moment this is all confined to the soccer community. Outside that community, I would tend to believe knowledge of Carlos Bocanegra ever being at Fulham — or even of Fulham at all — is non-existent.”

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